Is Drug Addiction an Illness? A Call for Help

In the year 2007, I encountered the term ‘drugs’ in my high school biology class. The teacher shared all these stories of how drugs let you enter heaven before descending to hell really fast. Still I shrugged it as something irrelevant to my life. Who knew the subject would become pertinent some time in the future?

Here is everything you need to get acquainted with the concept of drug addiction.

What are Drugs?

Psychoactive drugs refer to any substance that change how we think and behave. For the sake of our discussion, I will focus on the addictive properties of these drugs which usually constitute the illegal variant.

Examples of illegal drugs that you’ve probably heard of are cocaine, marijuana and shabu (methamphetamine). Although technically, legal substances like nicotine (in cigarettes) and alcohol (in beer) are also considered drugs. A number of drugs are smoked like nicotine or marijuana. However, some people prefer to inject drugs like nubain and meth to their bodies.This actually has more dangerous implications which will be discussed later.

Pick your poison. Drugs can be taken in many forms.

When is it called Addiction?

Most of these drugs were originally created with a medical purpose in mind, but when people start to use them simply to get high or escape problems, we refer to it as drug abuse. People who frequently abuse drugs will eventually develop an addiction. In contrast to drug abuse, drug addiction is a progressive disease characterized by compulsive seeking of drugs. By progressive disease, it means the person addicted never gets better without treatment since his brain has been significantly altered.

Though the initial choice to use drugs is always voluntary, the decision to stop taking becomes severely difficult when one is addicted.

Illegal drug abuse is more prevalent than you might like to think. You or  your friends may already have  frequented illegal substances like marijuana, ecstasy, or shabu. One time while I was teaching psychology of drugs to a class, I asked who among the students have tried inhaling shabu. With a poker face to hide my surprise, I saw approximately forty percent of my students raising their hands! When asked who smoked marijuana, even more raised!

Who among your friends are regular drug abusers?

In the year 2015, I spent 5 months in a rehab center for people addicted to drugs, particularly shabu. No, I was not one of the drug addicted clients! During my stay as a counselor, it was my duty to facilitate the recovery of my clients. However, what made the job most difficult  was that most clients were unwilling to change. In fact, approximately 90% of the clients were enrolled in the center against their will. This increased the prevalence of manipulation from clients even further, since most of them would take any chance to escape from the locked-up facility.

The Case of Noynoy

I happened to spot a newcomer being forced by a guard into the premise.

The malnourished newcomer had an angry expression, probably because he was forced into the center. He had bulging yellowish eyes and skin that seemed to have lost its glow for a while. Slashes and bruises covered the man almost as if intentionally patterned. “This must be why people should say no to drugs,” I thought to myself.

The man’s name was Noynoy (not his real name). After a few days of social isolation and abstinence from drugs, his demeanor lightened. Noynoy was assigned as my client, and something about the man’s behavior didn’t feel right. When Noynoy assembled with my other clients, he immediately tried to befriend them in an unnaturally jolly manner.

“Noy, unsa diay ang nakapalipay nimo karon? (Noy, why do you seem so happy?)”, I asked him.

“Bati man gud mag sige og paguol-guol sir gud! (It isn’t good to worry so much sir!)”, Noynoy cheerfully replied.

Though his statement made sense, something about it didn’t fit right with his circumstance. How can someone abruptly cut off from shabu feel so upbeat? I would expect a different emotional reaction from anyone in his shoes.

On private interviews, Noynoy would often sob about how sorry he was and that he is willing to change. Since being manipulative is a common trait possessed by drug addicts, I kept my guard up. Later I uncovered his long history of manipulation with his family and spouse. If he didn’t get what he wanted through sympathy, he would use other means such as physical violence. He also attempted to kill himself when he couldn’t bear not having the substance. He got what he wanted one way or another.

And he went through all the trouble to get his hands on the craved substance. The very object he tried so hard to acquire has turned him into a skeleton of his former self, yet Noynoy craved for more of it. How can one actively seek something that isn’t good for them?

The Role of Dopamine 

Neurotransmitters, simply put, are these chemicals in our brain linked to specific feelings. One such neurotransmitter called dopamine explains a lot of addictive behavior. Dopamine gives us the much needed drive to achieve whatever we want. It makes sure we stay motivated and keeps our eyes on the reward.

Dopamine looks like this, except it’s way way smaller and resides in your brain.

Interestingly, an enormous amount of dopamine is released when one is addicted to drugs. The amount of dopamine released can reach up to ten times as much as normal rewards. You think getting promoted at work makes you happy? That’s nothing compared to the high you get from snorting shabu, which we will discuss soon.

No wonder Noynoy threw away his relationships and work for the drugs. The drugs actually hijack your brain, making ordinary rewards like delicious food, job success, or good sex seem irrelevant!

Some of the older clients even mentioned that they become sex gods after achieving the state of drug euphoria. However, is the price of drug abuse worth it?

The Price of Prolonged Drug Abuse

What happens to a person after frequent exposure to these drugs? Interestingly, our brain activity significantly changes as we take these drugs in increased dosages. Since the surge of dopamine (and pleasure) produced after taking these drugs pale compared to normal rewards, our brains begin to produce less and less dopamine under normal circumstances. Available receptors that detect dopamine signals are also reduced. This is bad.

In layman’s terms, this would mean the drug abusers capacity to experience any form of pleasure is reduced. The drug abuser is left depressed and lifeless. Consequently, the person will crave the drug to get his dopamine cycle back to normal. This creates a nasty cycle I would not wish on anyone. The more drugs one takes, the less effective the next dosage becomes. Consequently, more and more drugs will be needed to achieve the euphoric feeling one seeks. This is commonly known as drug tolerance.

Unfortunately, drug abuse is never beneficial in the long haul, and entering this vicious cycle of drug abuse has severe implications for you and your brain.

Cravings and Relapse

Back in my childhood, I was rammed by an aggressive goat after I shared my sandwich with its kid. I fell down face first on the wet grass, and I was too embarrassed to face the people laughing. A decade later in college, a similar event happened while I was running late for class. Carrying a sandwich (I love sandwiches), I tripped on one of the secluded corridors. The goat memories just gushed in my mind along with the feelings of shame. My fall with the sandwich automatically triggered memories of being run over by that dreaded goat!

Relapse can occur even among the strongest.

Oftentimes, drug abusers experience a similar form of conditioning. Due to their repeated drug usage, their brains are conditioned to crave drugs. Furthermore, these cravings can be triggered by many stimuli associated with the person’s drugging experience.

This is why a recovering drug addict can abstain for many years but suddenly feel the urge to relapse. It only takes a single trigger to bring the dormant cravings for drugs back to life. Triggers can come in the form of people, experiences, and exposure to the drug itself. Relapse happens after a successful period of abstinence has happened, and the person returns to drugs. Sadly, relapse is natural for long time drug abusers, even when they have been properly treated. This doesn’t mean treatment shouldn’t be availed though.

This brings us to the popular saying, “once an addict, always an addict,” which has some truth backing it up. But does that mean there is no hope for drug addicts everywhere? Definitely not.

Is There a Cure?

Many authors point that drug addiction is a life time disease. But does it have a cure? Is there a way to reverse its effects on the brain? Aside from a few exceptions, the answer is no. Once a person has delved deep into drugs, it is likely that the person will always crave for more at certain periods of his life.

Fortunately, drug addiction is treatable. When a person is actively taking drugs, the first course of action is always to isolate him from the substance. This process is known as detoxification, and involves managing the dangerous bodily effects of drug withdrawal. Once the drug abuser has been detoxified, it is best that he undergoes behavioral treatment from qualified experts.

The types of treatments for drug addiction is long, and warrants a topic of its own.

Saying no is possible.

Hope for Drug Addicts

Drug addiction is definitely a debilitating condition that affects a person’s entire life. Fortunately, more countries are taking the necessary steps to ensure captured illegal drug abusers are given the necessary treatment (instead of pure jail time).

It’s also common to see recovering addicts use their painful experiences to guide people with similar plights. I’ve witnessed some becoming successful addiction coaches whose role is to guide fellow addicts to health and recovery.

One of the best thing we can provide recovering drug addicts is an environment free from stigma. Oftentimes, people discriminate drug addicts and their family, even with the knowledge that it is a treatable condition.

Do you know any continuing drug abusers out there who haven’t crossed the border of addiction yet? How can we best help these people?

A Call for Help

In the Philippines, one of the most common substance leading to addiction is meth. The country has always had a drug crisis, and the recent election of President Rodrigo Duterte has led to a rapid and strong anti-drug campaign. Consequently, more than 65,000 drug users and pushers have surrendered since July 2016, which the Philippines is ill equipped to handle.

Over 7000 of these drug surrenderers are from the province of Cebu. If you happen to be in the Cebu province and wish to help, Lahat Bangon or Labang  is in need of volunteers today. The Tagalog words ‘lahat bangon’ roughly translates to ‘everyone rise’. ‘Labang’ on the other hand, means ‘crossing over’ in Cebuano.

Labang is a barangay-based coalition that aims to reintegrate the 180+ surrendering drug users of Subangdaku, Mandaue City, Cebu. It also serves as a pilot project, which will hopefully be followed throughout the Philippines upon its success. You can read more about Labang here.

An article by Cebu Daily News

How to Volunteer

Fill up these three forms:

1. Volunteer Agreement Form

2.Referral Form

3. Waiver Form

Afterwards, bring them to the address: Subangdaku Garden, Subangdaku, Mandaue City, Cebu, Philippines. For inquiries or concerns, you may contact the Network Development Commitee member, Mark Palanca, through +63932-6412-566 or email to

The Philippines’ fight against drugs is finally swinging towards our favor. Let’s promote a “crossing over” from the slavery of addiction towards a community that’s healthy and free.


What are your opinions on drug addiction? Do you enjoy sandwiches and dread goats as well? Feel free to share your views on the comment section!


Blum, K., Chen, A. L., Giordano, J., Borsten, J., Chen, T. J., Hauser, M., . . . Barh, D. (2012). The Addictive Brain: All Roads Lead to Dopamine. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 44(2), 134-143. doi:10.1080/02791072.2012.685407

Drugs, brains, and behavior: The science of addiction. (2010). Retrieved September 2, 2016, from

Mayol, A. S. (2016, August 30). There is hope for drug addicts. Cebu Daily News. Retrieved September 2, 2016, from

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. (2016, July 14). In 2 weeks: 135 killed, 1,844 arrested, 66K ‘surrenderees,’ 43K homes ‘visited’. Retrieved September 03, 2016, from


Tagged with:

3 thoughts on “Is Drug Addiction an Illness? A Call for Help”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *